January 29, 2016
Last week, former governor of Florida Jeb Bush released his plan for reforming education. The plan, called “Restoring the Right to Rise Through a Quality Education,” rightly assesses that K-12 education is failing students and “higher education has become too expensive for many Americans to afford.”
Take K-12 education. During the last 40 years, the federal government has spent $2.1 trillion to school our kids, with spending per pupil tripling in real terms over that time. Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute calculated that government at all levels invested an average of $166,773 on the 13-year education of a high school senior who graduated in 2011, compared to $57,602 (in real dollars) for a 1970 graduate.
Despite the dramatic increase, students’ National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in reading, math, and science have shown no notable change since the 1970s. This means that each dollar we spend today buys us less education per capita than it used to.
This is not surprising as the current educational system provides few incentives for schools to improve. School districts are still based largely on residency; students remain tied to the neighborhood school regardless of how bad its performance may be. U.S. schools will receive funding and “customers” regardless of their merits (or lack thereof).
This structure is particularly destructive for children in low-income families. Privileged children tend to live in higher-performing school districts. If parents are unhappy with their assigned school, they can send their children to private schools or choose move to a better district—which provides another incentive for their district schools to compete to retain students. Less fortunate parents should not be deprived of the ability to remove their children from poor-performing schools simply because they lack the resources of their wealthier neighbors
The Bush plan tries to address some of these problems. Thankfully, he doesn’t throw money at the problem but attempts to empower parents, especially those low-income parents, with more choice. First, he converts 529 college savings accounts into Educations Savings Accounts (ESA), which can be used in pre-K but also for job training and summer school.
He consolidates 44 programs totaling $22 billion and would “allow states to deposit $2,500 annual scholarships in the ESA of every low-income child under five so their parents can choose the type of education services and care their children need to flourish.” He also doubles support for charter schools; strengthens the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program; and makes “federal aid to low-income (Title I) and special needs students (IDEA) portable, so states can give scholarships directly to those students to attend the school of their choice.”
These are all good ideas. Giving more choice to parents will address the lack of competition in the K–12 education system. Also, as Lisa Snell of Reason Foundation writes, what the many Title 1 reforms have missed until now is “a real sanction for poor performance and a threat of competition from better-performing public or private schools.” She continues, “The issue is not whether vouchers are a good idea but rather whether the threat of vouchers forces public schools to change their behavior. The answer is yes.”
As she notes, this part of the plan mirrors the education reform the governor implemented in Florida:
“Florida is the case in point. The Bush plan mirrors Jeb Bush’s A+ education plan in Florida. Since Gov. Bush signed into law the first statewide voucher program for students stuck in schools that receive an "F" for two years in a row based on student achievement, very few students have received vouchers. In the first year of the program, 53 students received the private vouchers and 60,000 other children were estimated to be eligible for the scholarships for the 2000 school year. Miraculously, in the second year of the A+ education plan every school in Florida (including the 70 schools that had an "F" grade the year before) managed to pull test scores up enough to avoid the voucher sanction.
Vouchers provide Bush's accountability system with the incentive that schools will need to improve student achievement. On a nationwide scale, failing public schools should have a similar response to the Florida public schools. Bush’s national voucher program is in fact more generous and lenient than the Florida voucher program. Failing schools will have three years to improve and will get extra help in terms of both financial and technical resources.”
Now, Bush also talks about reducing the federal government’s interference in academic standards curriculum and content. This is a great idea since as he notes, “Right now, too many regulations drown the system in compliance costs, wasting valuable resources. We need to give states the flexibility to reform and innovate to meet the unique needs of their students.” It is hard, however, not to be cynical about this considering the governor was one of the strongest supporters of Common Core national standards and considering the federal arm-twisting that took place to encourage states to adopt the standards.
In the same way, I fully support his call for giving states more flexibility to reform and innovate to serve their students. However, I should note that his support for Common Core has made flexibility, innovation and reform very hard in most states. In other words, Bush needs to make clearer where he stands today on the trade-offs and tensions between flexibility and innovation on the one hand and federal standards and rigidity on the other.
Finally, the Bush plan tries to address the high cost of higher education. I am not impressed. First, it would “create state databases so every student can see the average unemployment rate, earnings, graduation rates and debt repayment rate of programs they are considering. We need students to be able to judge the cost and quality of programs so they can make better choices and hold schools accountable.” It seems that this ought to be the role of parents and students to acquire this information, not the federal government. And it certainly is not the best use of federal dollars.
I like that his plan would eliminate the federal student loan program. However, he should have stopped there. Instead, he continues to favor federal involvement in higher-ed financing by replacing the loans with a $50,000 line of credit attached to each student’s education savings account.
Federal student aid, whether in the form of grants or loans, is the main factor behind the runaway cost of higher education. As Cato’s McCluskey explained in an April 2012 article for U.S. World & News Report: “The basic problem is simple: Give everyone $100 to pay for higher education and colleges will raise their prices by $100, negating the value of the aid. And inflation-adjusted aid—most of it federal—has certainly gone up, ballooning from $4,602 per undergraduate in 1990–91 to $12,455 in 2010-11.”
Thus begins a classic upward price spiral caused by government intervention: Subsidies raise prices, leading to higher subsidies, which raise prices even more. The solution is to get the federal government out of higher-ed financing altogether.
It would also make moot the part of the plan that gives “colleges and career training programs ‘skin in the game,’ putting them on the hook for a portion of the federal funds their alumni are unable to repay.”
To conclude, the Bush plan isn’t all bad. It doesn’t want to spend more federal money on education and understands the importance of giving more choices to parents and students by taking the power away from bad teachers, unions and administrators. However, it still allows for too much federal intervention in education.
Veronique de Rugy is a Policy Advisor to the Leadership Project for America Foundation.